Bill mobilizing National Guard for COVID-19 vaccines headed to Wolf’s desk

    National Guard units prepare vaccines in Maryland. Pennsylvania may enlist its guardsmen to help in vaccine missions if Gov. Tom Wolf signs a bill lawmakers sent him this week.

    Pennsylvania’s National Guard may soon be put to work getting COVID-19 vaccines to the public. 

    The state Senate voted 46-0 on Wednesday to send Gov. Tom Wolf a bill that mobilizes the state’s National Guard units to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to pharmacies and health centers; operate vaccination sites; and let trained guardsmen administer injections to patients. 

    The state House unanimously approved the bill sponsored by Rep. Tim O’Neal, R-Washington, earlier this month. 

    Officials in the Wolf administration have previously indicated that they support it. 

    National Guard units already have been deployed to conduct COVID-19 testing clinics at nursing homes and long-term care facilities across the commonwealth. If O’Neal’s bill becomes law, that state will have 45 days to develop a plan to assign them to vaccine missions.

    A former Army Ranger who serves on the state’s joint legislative task force for COVID-19, O’Neal told the Capital-Star earlier this week that his military experience has helped him assess the massive logistical project facing the state as it tries to quickly distribute a limited supply of COVID-19 vaccine doses.

    Both federally approved COVID-19 vaccines require two doses to be administered weeks apart, and each have specific requirements for cold storage. 

    Pennsylvania has moved slower than other jurisdictions in getting its limited supply of doses to patients.

    O’Neal said the state could follow the examples set by states like West Virginia, which borders his western Pennsylvania district and has led the nation in vaccine distribution. 

    West Virginia has leaned on its National Guardsmen to distribute vaccine doses and medical equipment. 

    Officials in Pennsylvania hope that they will be able to move vaccines more quickly once they have more doses to allocate. But a larger supply of vaccines could pose its own challenges, O’Neal said, unless Pennsylvania is prepared to distribute equipment and staff vaccination sites. 

    “Hopefully we’ll [soon] be in a situation where we have much more supply, but then we will be worried about vaccinating thousands of people a day,” O’Neal told the Capital-Star earlier this week. “I’m not quite convinced we are prepared for that situation just yet.”